May 4, 2012
The highest-grossing film of all time, Avatar, has started to make its way through the cable television universe. I saw a few minutes of it this week on FX, and was surprised by how different the film seemed than when I saw it in a theater. On TV it looked smaller, less distinctive, more ordinary, harder to tell apart from the sci-fi films and shows surrounding it. Avatar is a movie you can only truly appreciate in a theater setting—something director James Cameron understands as well as anyone in the business. He makes movies for theaters, not homes.
Although the box office is trending higher in recent months, National Association of Theatre Owners records indicate that movie attendance is at a 20-year low. Receipts have fallen a half-billion dollars. Facing a growing number of rival entertainments, the film industry needs to find a way to bring viewers back to theaters.
Hollywood faced these problems before, with the spread of radio in the late 1920s, and the rise of television some 30 years later. To fight TV, the industry turned to widescreen processes, more color (as opposed to B&W), the first sustained attempts at 3D, and a plague of religious epics that descended on theaters in the 1950s.
More recently, filmmakers have been resorting to similar tactics to differentiate the movie-going experience from TV, YouTube, and games: bigger budgets, louder soundtracks, 3D, and stories whose visual scope can’t be contained on iPads and other handheld devices. Weirdly, these tactics happen to converge with movies derived from comic books.
The industry has always relied on comics and cartoons for inspiration. In a sense movies and comics grew up together, and each helped the other to thrive. The Edison Manufacturing Co. released The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog in 1905, capitalizing on a popular series of lithographs. A year later Edison put out Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, based on Winsor McCay’s comic strip. McCay animated another of his strips for what is now known as Little Nemo (1911). (The film was actually released as Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics.)
McCay did more than anyone to turn both comic strips and screen animation into art forms. He helped free artists from a visual style based on stage performances, with action occurring on a flat plane behind a proscenium. McCay opened up a world with depth, with shifting horizons, and his influence can still be seen today in cross-cutting techniques and in the angled compositions found in X-Men or Transformers.
In following years stories moved from comics to film and back again. Blondie, Dennis the Menace, The Addams Family, Jungle Jim, Li’l Abner, Popeye, Dick Tracy, and many others worked in both comics and movies. A star of radio and screen, Gene Autry had his own comic book as well. (So did his rival Roy Rogers.) Universal made so much money from a serial derived from the comic strip Tailspin Tommy that it made a deal with King Features Syndicate to develop other comic-strip-based movies. Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and Secret Agent X-9 (written by Dashiell Hammett) followed quickly. Based on Alex Raymond’s comic strip, Flash Gordon was so popular that theater owners showed episodes at night on top of matinee screenings for kids. (The serial was later re-edited into a feature version.)
Before he was impersonated by Christian Bale, George Clooney, and Michael Keaton, even before he had his own television series, Batman starred in a 1943 Columbia Pictures serial. Superman started out in a cartoon series for Paramount before starring in a TV series and then making the jump to features in the 1970s and again in 2006′s Superman Returns. Both superheroes are part of the DC Comics stable, now owned by Warner Bros. (The latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, will be released on July 20.)
DC rival Marvel Comics approached film warily at first. Republic Pictures produced a serial of Captain America in 1944, and Cannon Pictures released a ludicrous, low-budget Captain America in 1990. But it wasn’t until recently that Marvel Studios began aggressively developing its characters—including Spider-Man, X-Men, The Fantastic Four, Iron Man, Thor, and The Avengers. (Starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, The Amazing Spider-Man will open on July 3.)
Despite works from filmmakers as renowned as Steven Spielberg (The Adventures of Tin-Tin) and Martin Scorsese (Hugo, based on Brian Selznick’s illustrated novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret), some critics worry that comic book adaptations are destroying cinema as an art form. Reviewing Green Lantern, New Yorker critic David Denby asked, “Do these movies really satisfy anyone except kids and overgrown boys?”
Or take today’s lukewarm review of The Avengers by New York Times critic A.O. Scott, who called the film “a giant A.T.M. for Marvel and its new studio overlords, the Walt Disney Company.” When he isn’t giving away the film’s best jokes, or identifying with The Hulk, Scott is busy lambasting “the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the genre.”
I attended the same screening Scott did, and felt that the audience was much more enthusiastic about the film. Yes, it’s big, and so loud that its explosions were positively percussive. But I also found it nimble, clever, funny, and fast—equivalent to any action film of the year so far. Scott arrived late and had to sit in the front rows and to the side of the screen, which may have colored his experience. (Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal sat through the first half-hour of the film with defective 3D glasses, but at least he acknowledged that in his review: “The technical screw-up was so upsetting that it may have skewed my judgment about the movie as a whole.”)
The Times critic has never been a fan of action blockbusters, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise when he refers huffily to “overblown, skull-assaulting action sequences”—the precise reason why many viewers love the comic books. What has raised eyebrows is the reaction on Twitter by Samuel J. Jackson (S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury in the film), who fumed that “Scott needs new job!”
Predictably, several critics defended Scott, if not his opinions. But I’m on Jackson’s side here. If you need to cite a 1959 Howard Hawks film, the Rat Pack, and an irrelevant TV role from the 1960s, you have placed yourself pretty definitively outside the demographic The Avengers is targeting. And if the best you can say about the comic book genre is that it’s “entered a phase of imaginative decadence,” you can just ignore all the elements that make The Avengers so enjoyable.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
May 2, 2012
News that a press screening of The Avengers had to be delayed over two hours because the digital file was accidentally deleted spread through a number of film and tech sites: Slate, Tecca, Y!Tech, etc. For some, it was further confirmation of the warnings raised by Gendy Alimurung in a recent LAWeekly article: “Movie Studios Are Forcing Hollywood to Abandon 35mm.”
Not everyone agrees. For example, Leo Enticknap, a film historian with the Institute of Communications Studies at the University of Leeds, pointed out on an archivists’ listserv the many times film screenings had to be postponed due to prints not arriving on time, or being spliced together incorrectly, or falling off their platters, or any number of mechanical failures with projecting equipment.
Still, digital failures, as opposed to analog ones, seem to stir up more publicity, perhaps similar to the alarmed newspaper accounts of horseless carriage accidents before the rise of automobiles. For many theater owners, Film vs. Digital has become a moot point. As the March/April 2012 issue of Screen Trade points out, “The pace [of conversion to digital] is fast and the pressure tightening. At a very near point, if you do not have digital, you will not show movies.”
The recently concluded 8th Orphan Film Symposium was not just a chance to see movies from around the world, but an opportunity to catch up with historians and archivists to talk about the state of film preservation. As I mentioned in an earlier post, funding continues to be the most significant factor facing archivists. What surprised me the most in the two years since the previous symposium was how quickly digital has dominated screenings.
Dan Streible, director of the Orphan Film Project and the author of a forthcoming book about the orphan genre, agreed that more and more presenters “were opting to choose a high definition digital transfer and not even bother with film.” Streible agreed that digital files were easier and cheaper to duplicate. “But it’s a mixed bag,” he went on. “The piece we’re about to watch [The Jungle] wasn’t shown yesterday because a file was missing. And definitely all the examples I have seen here verified for me that film prints are always superior to the digital transfers.”
For Dwight Swanson, a founder of the Center for Home Movies, making 16mm prints, often a condition for preservation grants, is becoming prohibitively expensive. “We were just working on a grant proposal, and it turns out we couldn’t do a project because of the costs of film,” he said. “We could make a digital file, but what then? Our organization has no IT structure. We’d end up with a hard drive on a shelf. Who knows how long that would be viable?”
To screen a 16mm film, Swanson would very likely have to supply a projector and someone who knew how to operate it. “And what is the point of spending thousands of dollars to get a 16mm print that might be projected once?” he asked. “Everyone else will watch it on DVD.”
“Our experience was that a lot of the new 16mm prints we had made for the 7th Orphan Symposium got damaged in their first showing,” Streible revealed. “Was it worth that extra few hundred dollars, or would it have been better for a ten-minute film which never looked very good to begin with to just be satisfied with digital?”
Eli Savada of the Motion Picture Information Service believes that, “Film will be presentable for another few years—it depends on how much equipment can be kept in shape.” David Schwartz, chief curator at the Museum of the Moving Image, told attendees that his staff had to send to Uruguay for a replacement bulb for an Elmo 16mm projector.
Anka Mebold, a film archivist and restorer with the Deutsches Filminstitut in Frankfurt, Germany, believes that film will continue to serve as a preservation medium. “As archivists, we are in a double-bind. Do you allow film to be projected or keep it on a shelf?” she asked. “Perforated plastic with photographic emulsion is probably the most stable carrier, so I think film is not going to go away. It will probably vanish from exhibition, however. Digital projection doesn’t threaten possibly unique film elements.”
But as Walter Forsberg, a research fellow at NYU Libraries, points out, “Digitization is more expensive than film. The long-term costs of paying someone to be a digital custodian, to exercise the drives, to perform ongoing management files, to migrate from format to format indefinitely into the future, is way more expensive than film, than preserving materials on celluloid.”
Skip Elsheimer, a media archeologist with A/V Geeks, believes that access to materials is key. “Access is the first step toward preservation,” he said. “When films are online, people can access them and identify areas for research. You can say, ‘You know what? That title’s important because it was made by a special company, or it’s the first time a musician scored something, or it’s an early appearance by an actor.’”
Digital answers some of these access issues, but also raises other questions. “Videotape is going away,” Elsheimer pointed out. “The crushing blow was the tsunamis in Japan last year that hit the Sony tape manufacturing plants. A lot of people changed over to file-based formats at that point.”
But what format do you use? “When YouTube came out, it was a pretty big deal,” Elsheimer said. “We’re still talking to archives who want a YouTube channel, so that’s what the bar is. And that bar’s not very high. But a lot of people just want to see something, even if they’re seeing it in the worst possible quality.”
Elsheimer believes how we watch movies determines the delivery format. “With High Definition, video has gotten bigger, but people are watching it smaller—on iPhones and iPads,” he said. “What’s changing now is the software for reading video files. Final Cut was a big thing for a while, but we’re shifting to another format. Are QuickTime files going to be valuable anymore? Probably not.”
Some are still holding onto film, grimly, stubbornly, perhaps out of a misplaced nostalgia. Still, Elena Rossi-Snook, the moving image archivist for the Reserve Film and Video Collection of The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, received an enthusiastic round of applause when she delivered this manifesto:
We’re preserving the experience of watching analog film being mechanically projected, and then we’re also preserving the social and cultural role of the public library film collection. Which means that regardless of economy, age, political affiliation, religion, race—you will have access to the mechanical projection of 16mm motion picture film onto a white screen in the dark. That is your right as a patron of the library.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
April 27, 2012
As I wrote earlier, the Tribeca Film Festival ends this weekend with a screening of The Avengers, the latest Marvel Comics big-screen adaptation and a linchpin in a marketing plan that now extends to 2016, when The Avengers 2 will be released. The Festival has already handed out its awards, including Best Documentary Feature going to The World Before Her, and a special jury mention for The Revisionaries.
The most intriguing awards went to Una Noche, Lucy Mulloy’s feature drama about three young Cubans. The film won for Best New Narrative Director (Mulloy), Best Cinematography in a Narrative Feature Film (Trevor Forrest and Shlomo Godder), and Best Actor in a Narrative Feature Film (Dariel Arrechada and Javier Núñez Florián). Arrechada picked up his award at the Festival, but Florián and a third costar, Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre, dropped from sight at the Miami airport and may have defected in real life.
CinemaCon, billed as “the largest and most important gathering of movie theatre owners from around the world,” ended its four-day run at Caesars Palace on August 26. The annual trade show of the National Association of Theatre Owners, CinemaCon featured panels on marketing, employee relations, demonstrations of equipment (e.g., “Light Levels: Optimizing Screens and Lamps”); awards to stars like Jeremy Renner, Charlize Theron, and Taylor Kitsch; and corporate suites, cocktail parties, and dinners emceed by the likes of Jack Black.
More important, CinemaCon is a chance for studios to preview their summer blockbusters. Attendees saw excerpts from Pixar’s Brave, Warner Bros.’ Dark Shadows and The Dark Knight Rises, and Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Jackson stirred up some controversy by asking theater owners to project The Hobbit in a version that runs at 48 frames per second, a speed he said would produce greater clarity and be “more gentle on the eyes.” (24 fps has been the standard since the industry switched to sound at the end of the 1920s.)
CinemaCon is targeted toward theater owners and only incidentally to moviegoers. The Orphan Film Symposium, on the other hand, covers films that have no audience, and in many cases no clear owners either. Made to Persuade, the eighth edition of the symposium, ran from April 11–14 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY, offering almost 100 films and as many speakers. (I also wrote about the 7th symposium for Smithsonian.)
The symposium lets archivists and historians meet and share work, and also screen restoration work before it becomes available to the public. Funding for archives and for preservation work in general is a bigger problem than ever, and several of the over 300 attendees had stories of lost jobs, curtailed projects, and rejected grants. A greater surprise for me was the sharp rise in digital as opposed to film presentations, which I hope to explore in more detail in a future posting.
Some of the highlights of the symposium included a screening introduced by Jay Schwartz of a newly restored version of The Jungle, a 1967 film about gang violence made by actual members of a North Philadelphia gang. A stark, haunting combination of documentary and staged footage, The Jungle is an uncompromising portrait of an urban nightmare.
Walter Forsberg screened a series of computer animation films from AT&T/Bell Labs, highlighting the difficulty in preserving art that began as software code.
Jon Gartenberg showed excerpts from films shot by Tassilo Adam in the Dutch East Indies in the 1920s. Although preserved digitally, the material had the lustrous sheen of the nitrate on which it was originally filmed. Adam filmed with the cooperation of authorities, who staged processions and gatherings for his camera. Nevertheless, his footage shows a considerably more sophisticated vision of Bali than other films of the period.
A session devoted to Sheldon and Lee Dick included School: A Film about Progressive Education, a 1939 documentary that predates cinema verite techniques by some twenty years, and Men and Dust (1940), about the effects of silicosis on mine workers. A publisher and photographer as well as a filmmaker, Sheldon Dick was also an heir to the A.B. Dick mimeograph machine fortune. He is perhaps more famous today for murdering his third wife and then committing suicide.
More lighthearted fare included a series of advertising films I will discuss in a future posting, Presidential campaign ads from 1948, a film produced by several Hollywood studios promoting 1938 as “Motion Pictures’ Greatest Year,” and Past and Present in the Cradle of Dixie, a silent short from the Paragon Feature Film Company that used romance and the threat of a house fire to promote Montgomery, Alabama as a great place to live.
Sergei Kapterev of the Moscow Research Institute of Film showed the beguiling educational film The Flight to Thousands of Suns, made by Aleksei Yerin at Popular Science Films, a Leningrad studio founded in 1933 as Techfilm Factory #1. The studio released some 4,000 titles. Equally as fascinating was Studies of Apparent Behavior (1943), an animated short by Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel used in psychological studies.
Jodie Mack and Danielle Ash, previous winners of the Helen Hill Awards for animation, hand-drew directly onto a reel of 70mm clear leader to take advantage of the Museum of the Moving Image’s 70mm projectors. The 2012 Helen Hill Awards went to Jeanne Liotta and Jo Dery. In films like Loretta (2003), Liotta builds menacing worlds from strips of film, exposed rayograms, and abstract sound. Dery’s films use cutouts, animation, and a mordant sense of humor to make accessible if unsettling cartoons. Woodpecker in Snow Shoes (2008) was particularly strong.
Dan Streible, director of the Orphan Film Project, announced that the next symposium will be held in 2014 at the EYE Film Instituut in Amsterdam. Streible just co-edited, with Devin and Marsha Orgeron, Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States for Oxford University Press. He also received a 2012 Academy Film Scholar grant for his book proposal Orphan Films: Saving, Screening, and Studying Neglected Cinema.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
April 25, 2012
This Friday marks the release of The Raven, a Relativity Media thriller directed by James McTeigue and starring John Cusack as Edgar Allan Poe, who learns to his dismay that a serial killer is re-enacting murders from his stories.
With his mysterious death in Baltimore never fully explained, Edgar Allan Poe is the perfect cautionary tale of genius gone wrong. The poet’s demise haunts 19th century melodrama—and by extension, the works of early filmmakers like D.W. Griffith.
Poe’s ignominious end was not his fault, of course—it was drink, or his broken childhood, or the death of his consumptive love Virginia Clemm, that drove Poe to his doom. Today we summon different demons to explain his failings, schizophrenia perhaps, or chemical dependency, some form of Tourette’s, a bi-polar tendency, all of which he wrote about convincingly in his stories and poems.
Our image of Poe changes through the years, as does our interpretation of his work. For most he is a guilty pleasure of adolescence. His gruesome horror stories are like fairy tales collected by the brothers Grimm, peopled by tricksters and shape-shifters who betray the innocent with elaborate, deadly, and pointless booby traps. Who but a madman would go to the trouble to use a razor-sharp pendulum as a murder weapon? Poems like “The Bells” and “The Raven” have an unnerving, sing-song lyricism that once learned are never forgotten.
Many readers skim Poe’s work and then outgrow him. Even his contemporaries had their doubts. “Three-fifths of him genius and two-fifths sheer fudge,” was how poet James Russell Lowell put it. But behind all the insanity and gore Poe was capable of extraordinary writing. “To Helen,” for example, or this example of an Alexandrine couplet unearthed after his passing:
Deep in earth my love is lying
And I must weep alone.
It’s no surprise that early filmmakers turned to Poe. They were after all desperate for material, and ransacked everything from the Bible to the daily newspapers for material. The author’s influence can be seen in the scores of trick films that dazzled early 20th century moviegoers. With his own carefully nurtured martyr complex, Griffith saw many affinities with Poe. In 1909, he directed Edgar Allan Poe, in which actor Herbert Yost tries to write “The Raven” while his wife dies beside him. One of Griffith’s first features was The Avenging Conscience (1914), like The Raven a mash-up of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “Annabel Lee,” and other Poe works.
With stories like “The Gold Bug” and “The Purloined Letter,” Poe is often given credit for inventing the detective genre. His C. Auguste Dupin inspired generations of private eyes, as well as scores of pulp novels and films whose narratives depend on solving codes. This is an angle The Raven hopes to exploit, although the film looks like it will dwell on the author’s use of horror elements as well.
And here’s where Poe deserves some of the blame for the cycle of horror films sometimes called “torture porn.” In stories like “The Premature Burial” and “The Cask of Amontillado,” he latched onto primal fears with sadistic relish, acting out what society seeks to repress. Poe offered a moral framework for his depictions of torture, something often jettisoned by later writers and filmmakers. “The Premature Burial” evolved into the 1984 novel The Golden Egg and then into The Vanishing, a ghastly 1988 Dutch film directed by George Sluizer (who also directed a 1993 American remake). From The Vanishing it’s a short step to Buried (2010), in which Ryan Reynolds is buried alive in a coffin, or Brake (2012), in which Stephen Dorff is buried alive in the trunk of a car.
Universal Studios made a fortune in the 1930s with horror films like Dracula and Frankenstein. Director Robert Florey was pulled from Frankenstein at the last minute and assigned to The Murders in the Rue Morgue instead. Based very loosely on the Poe short story, the film portrayed torture as graphically as any movie of its time. Along with The Island of Lost Souls, The Murders in the Rue Morgue helped bring about stricter censorship regulations. When the Production Code lost power in the 1960s, producers could be more explicit about their intentions. “The Pit and the Pendulum” was adapted into the 1967 German film The Torture Chamber of Dr. Sadism.
Poe has attracted peculiar filmmakers: independents like James Sibley Watson and Melville Webber, working in a stable in Rochester; or the cartoonists at UPA, who were busy in the 1950s undermining the animation industry. Experimental filmmakers like Jean Epstein, iconoclasts like Federico Fellini, Roger Vadim, and Roger Corman. Filmmakers responsible for what critic Manny Farber referred to as “termite art.”
Sibley and Watson made a 13-minute version of The Fall of the House of Usher in 1928; that same year, Epstein directed the feature-length La Chute de la maison Usher. Both relied heavily on an expressionistic filmmaking style developed in Germany, in which foreshortened sets and angled compositions made up for a lack of narrative clarity.
The 1930s saw an Art Deco The Black Cat, with almost no relation to the Poe story but with one of the few pairings of horror icons Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Shepperd Strudwick starred in 1942′s The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe, an amusing bit of hogwash, and Joseph Cotten in 1951′s Man with a Cloak.
James Mason narrated 1953′s animated The Tell-Tale Heart, a cunning cartoon from United Productions of America (UPA) that delved into the mind of a killer just as it began to unravel. (A set of UPA cartoons, including The Tell-Tale Heart and Gerald McBoing Boing, has just been released by Turner Classic Movies and Sony Pictures Home Entertainment under the title The Jolly Frolics Collection.) Director Ted Parmelee would later go on to Rocky and Bullwinkle.
Producer and director Roger Corman finished House of Usher, the first of his eight Poe adaptations for American International Pictures, in 1960. “The film was about decay and madness,” Corman wrote in his autobiography. “I told my cast and crew: I never wanted to see ‘reality’ in any of these scenes.” His largely teen audience saw a lot of premature burials and implied incest instead, as well as a curious mix of new stars like Jack Nicholson and veteran actors like Vincent Price and Peter Lorre.
That blend of showmanship and exploitation continues to this day. A whiff of the forbidden clings to Poe adaptations. Then as now they were marketed to horror fans, to adolescents, to those with a taste for depravity and pain. A different audience than for, say, Pollyanna or The King of Kings. We know snatches of the writer’s work now, bits and pieces like black cats and manacles, ghosts carrying candelabras, images that as likely as not come from movie posters and trailers. The upcoming months will see several more Poe adaptations, including Terroir with Keith Carradine and The Tell-Tale Heart with Rose McGowan.
April 20, 2012
This year’s Earth Day has an ambitious theme: Mobilize the Earth. Two new film releases—Disney’s Chimpanzee and Warner Bros.’s To the Arctic 3D—were timed to take advantage of the publicity surrounding Earth Day, with To the Arctic 3D taking a strong, even pointed, stance on climate change.
The film industry has a long history of movies with environmental messages, although they are usually tied in with other genres. Early Edison films like The Miller’s Daughter (1905) contrasted corrupt urban lifestyles with the more innocent morals of the countryside, something D.W. Griffith would espouse in dozens of bucolic shorts for Biograph. In part filmmakers were catering to their audience, at the time largely lower- and middle-class patrons who were suspicious of the wealthy. Take 1917′s The Public Be Damned, in which farmers are ruined by a “Food Trust,” or The Food Gamblers from that same year, in which food speculators deliberately oppress the poor.
Environmental issues were often folded into social critique films, movies that covered problems between industry and labor, for example. Mining was a favorite topic, and although plots were usually couched in terms of strikes, titles like The Lily of the Valley (1914) and The Blacklist (1916) showed the negative impact the industry had on the landscape.
The environment became a central factor in documentaries like Nanook of the North (1922) and Grass (1925). The former, directed by Robert Flaherty, showed how the Inuit lived in harmony with a harsh Arctic landscape; the latter, directed by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Shoedsack, covered the migration of the Bakhtiari tribe through the grasslands and forbidding mountains of what is now Iraq.
Scenes of the devastation caused by the Dust Bowl filled newsreels in the 1930s, and the subsequent Okie migration inspired novels like John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, later filmed by John Ford with Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell as displaced farmers.
The federally funded documentary The Plow That Broke the Plains tried to address the causes of the Dust Bowl. Under the direction of Pare Lorentz, cameramen Ralph Steiner, Paul Strand, and Leo Hurwitz began shooting footage in Montana in September, 1935. Lorentz hired Virgil Thompson to write the score, and worked closely with the composer while editing and writing the narration. Released by the U.S. Resettlement Administration on May 28, 1936, the film played in 3000 commercial theaters before enjoying a long life at Army posts, Sunday schools, and cinema clubs.
Lorentz followed The Plow with The River, an even more ambitious film that started out in 1936 as a survey of the Mississippi River. Heavy flooding in January, 1937, changed the focus of the film, which ended up arguing for approval of Tennessee Valley Authority dam and electrification projects. With another score by Virgil Thompson, The River was funded by the Farm Security Administration and released theatrically by Paramount. It was awarded best documentary at the 1937 International Film Festival at Venice, beating Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympiad.
Many of the filmmakers on the Lorentz titles went on to significant careers in documentaries. Willard Van Dyke worked on The City (1939) and Valley Town (1940), for example, two films that dealt with the environment. Power and the Land (1940, directed by Joris Ivens) continued the arguments set forth in The River. The politically provocative Frontier Films released People of the Cumberland (1937), in which Elia Kazan in his directing debut examined an isolated coal mining community. (Later in his career, Kazan returned to the area to make Wild River, a sort of rebuttal to The River.)
World War II changed the focus of documentaries from cautionary to supportive. Produced by Walt Disney, The Grain That Built a Hemisphere (1943) and Water—Friend or Foe (1944) viewed the environment as something that could be channeled to the war effort. After the war, Disney embarked on a series of True-Life Adventures, nature documentaries like The Living Desert (1953) and The Vanishing Prairie (1954), both Oscar winners. Disney cartoons like Johnny Appleseed (1955) and Paul Bunyan (1958) had implicit environmental messages.
Based on Rachel Carson’s book, The Sea Around Us (1953) won an Oscar for Best Documentary. Carson, whose later book Silent Spring (1962) is credited with bringing the problem of pesticides to the attention of the public, did not like the film and would not permit any of her other works to be filmed. The Silent World (1956), directed by Louis Malle and Jacques Cousteau, also won an Oscar. Cousteau went on to become one of the foremost spokesmen on the aquatic environment and the creative force behind an entire library of oceanographic movies.
But the most significant environmental films of the period were found on television. Stories like 1959′s “The Population Explosion,” 1960′s “Harvest of Shame” and 1968′s “Hunger in America” (all for CBS Reports) addressed environmental issues that were largely ignored in feature films of the time.
It’s not that filmmakers didn’t want to cover the environment. The problem then and now was finding both funding for projects and theater owners who would show the films. Formed in 1969, Appalshop, a nonprofit arts and education center in Whitesburg, Kentucky, addressed these issues by funding and distribution movies, video, books, recordings, and radio shows. Director Mimi Pickering joined Appalshop in 1971, four years before she released The Buffalo Creek Flood: An Act of Man, which documented a dam failure that killed 125, injured 1,100, and destroyed 700 homes. A year later, Barbara Kopple won an Oscar for Harlan County U.S.A.
Apart from the occasional title like the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth (2006), television is still the best bet today for finding environmental films. Feature films, on the other hand, tend to tie environmental themes to larger stories. The China Syndrome (1979) is more a political thriller than an environmental one, although its lessons are chilling. Silent Running (1972) and WALL-E (2008) comment on the environment, but have other stories to tell. The Day After Tomorrow (2004) turns its issues into an adventure tale.
For me one of the most powerful environmental films Hollywood ever released is How Green Was My Valley (1941), the film that famously beat out Citizen Kane for the Best Picture Oscar. Based on an autobiographical novel by Richard Llewellyn, the story ostensibly depicted the decline of the Morgan family, proud coal miners in a small Welsh village. But it is really about the destruction of both a landscape and a way of life for reasons its characters never fully grasp.
There are no answers in How Green Was My Valley. Work is deadly, management and unions corrupt. Religions feud among themselves, authorities are powerless, families fall apart. The downward arc of the film, from its sunny vistas to dank mines, from life to death, is as chilling as any in American film.
April 19, 2012
The 11th Tribeca Film Festival opened yesterday with the world premiere of The Five-Year Engagement, a romantic comedy that opens in theaters nationwide on April 27. The festival ends on April 29 with a special screening of the highly anticipated Disney adaptation of The Avengers. In between these two “tentpole” events is a sprawling festival culled from almost 6,000 submissions.
The festival will be screening 89 features in several New York venues, with series like “World Narrative Competition,” “Spotlight” and “Cinemania,” as well as an expanded online presence, industry panels and a number of free events—including the return of the Tribeca Drive-In, this year showing Jaws, Goonies and the new baseball documentary Knuckleball.
Last year’s edition attracted some 400,000 visitors, but the Tribeca Film Festival in some ways still seems to be searching for an identity. Founded in 2002 by Robert De Niro, Jane Rosenthal and Craig Hatkoff, the festival was originally intended to bring people back to New York’s downtown in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Since then it has grown into a combination of civic booster and industry incubator, with offshoots like the Tribeca Film Institute helping to fund documentary and independent projects.
Other film festivals have done a better job in staking out their territory: the New York Film Festival focuses on European auteurs; SXSW on independents and mixed media; the Toronto International Film Festival, towards more purely commercial titles; Sundance, on low-budget, downbeat character studies.
Geoffrey Gilmore, the former director of the Sundance Film Festival, now heads an overhauled programming staff at Tribeca. He joins Frédéric Boyer, formerly with the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes and now Tribeca’s artistic director. In press conferences, neither is willing to define a “Tribeca film,” citing goals of presenting excellent and unseen titles instead, a way to reintroduce viewers to “film culture.” “A platform for discussion,” as Gilmore went on in a recent interview, “a place where a filmmaker can be discovered.”
Tentpoles aside, the majority of movies at Tribeca are niche titles that don’t receive wide distribution. Exposure is key, and this is where the festival can really help bring attention to deserving projects. By grouping films together, Tribeca can cause a sort of “umbrella effect,” in which a music documentary like The Zen of Bennett, about the popular singer, might help highlight The Russian Winter, which follows former Fugees member and ex-con John Forté on his concert tour of Russia.
In fact, this year’s Tribeca is top-heavy with music documentaries, some of which look irresistible. Don’t Stop Believin’: Everyman’s Journey follows Filipino singer Arnel Pineda from the slums of Manila to lead singer of the rock band Journey. Searching for Sugar Man examines the mysterious career of 1970s rocker Rodriguez, who became an inexplicable favorite in South Africa. Queen: Days of Our Lives is filled with archival footage of the band on stage and in the studio. Wagner’s Dream, featuring Deborah Voigt, charts the Metropolitan Opera’s five-year plan to stage Richard Wagner’s Ring Cycle.
Several thrillers fill out this year’s schedule, proving yet again that, in the words of critic Otis Ferguson, “Crime doesn’t pay—except at the box office.” Set in the Philippines, Graceland follows the aftermath of a botched kidnapping in an unacknowledged reworking of Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 film High and Low. In Unit 7, police tackle drug dealers in Seville. The cop in the French film Sleepless Night (Nuit Blanche) has to ransom his son with stolen cocaine. In Canada’s Deadfall, a blizzard blocks a crook and his sister (Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde) in their attempt to get across the border. And in Freaky Deaky, directed by Charles Matthau, stars like Christian Slater, Crispin Glover, and Michael Jai White try to bring Elmore Leonard’s crime novel to life. (Leonard, Slater, Glover and Matthau will appear in a panel following the April 21 screening.)
Scouts have been touting titles like First Winter (which my insider spy criticized as dull and pretentious); 2 Days in New York, Julie Delpy’s follow-up to 2 Days in Paris; and Francophenia (or: Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is), the latest in writer-actor-director-teacher James Franco’s media onslaught. Here are four films I am looking forward to:
Booker’s Place: A Mississippi Story—Director Raymond De Felitta returns to Mississippi to examine the aftermath of his father Frank’s 1965 documentary about racism in a film that proves that intolerance is still a way of life in the South.
The Revisionaries—How textbook standards are set by the 15-member Texas State Board of Education.
Side by Side—Writer and director Chris Kenneally interviews the industry’s top filmmakers, including James Cameron, Martin Scorsese and Steven Soderbergh, about the differences between digital and film processes. If you’ve been following this blog, you can bet that I’ll be covering this film in greater detail in the future.
The World Before Her—Director Nisha Pahuja takes a look at both the Miss India beauty pageant and a fundamentalist Hindu camp for girls to show how women are perceived in contemporary India.
April 13, 2012
If you’ve been lucky enough to visit Lake Placid, New York, you’ve probably passed the Palace Theater, a fixture on Main Street since 1926. “The Pride of the Great North Woods,” as it used to be advertised, The Palace has hosted everything from vaudeville to organ recitals and silent film festivals. Now with four screens showing first-run films, the theater draws residents and visitors who are either exhausted from outdoor activities or seeking a respite from Adirondack storms.
Newcomers and old hands alike find a warm, friendly theater graced with period details and modern enhancements. Since 1961, the Palace has been owned by Reg Clark, who runs the theater with his wife Barbara and their children. “It was a wedding present,” Reg told me, standing in the lobby between shows. “We got married in 1960 and I bought the theater in 1961. I went to her and said, ‘Barbara, I just bought the Palace Theater.’ Almost had a divorce on my hands.”
“He said, ‘How much money do you have? I need to borrow some,’” Barbara adds. “And he said right off this would be a family project. We have five children, and they all have helped here. Right now one daughter does all the advertising, the other works in the box office, one son gives out passes, and the other does a lot of the little things that always need doing.”
In 1926, Lake Placid business leaders decided that the town needed a first-run theater to attract visitors. (An earlier theater, The Happy Hour, closed soon after the Palace opened.) They spared no expense, outfitting the venue with a stage and proscenium, and installing a Robert Morton pipe organ that still attracts aficionados.
“When we bought the theater, the people who had it were going to enlarge the proscenium arch,” Reg recalls. “They were on ladders drilling out the wall when they came to this cable that had hundreds of colored wires inside. They asked the contractor, ‘What do you do with this cable?’ It was from the pipe organ.”
Barbara picks up the story: “Each wire was the equivalent of a note, and a note had to match the wire or the sound wouldn’t pass through. We had a young man at the school who taught music, and he and our manager at that time did the matching.”
The Clarks have made other changes to the theater. “In 1980 we doubled, or twinned it, we put a wall between the downstairs and upstairs,” Reg explained. “In 1983 we tripled it by putting a wall that split the upstairs theater. And in 1985, we took the stage out and built a new theater there.”
But the Clarks made sure to hold onto the details that made the Palace so distinctive when it opened. A large fireplace sits behind the concession stand, and the lobby boasts hand-stenciled designs that evoke patterns from the 1920s.
Films are screened twice a night year-round, with weekend matinees in the winter and daily matinees in the summer. Although the Clarks recently raised admission prices for the first time in ten years, tickets are a bargain by anyone’s standards: $7 for adults at night, and $5 for children. Plus, candy and popcorn are a steal. “We could charge more,” Barbara admits, “but we like to see more people.”
Barbara believes that the Palace serves as a sort of anchor for Main Street. Reg agrees: “When I used to work here, the Palace was the center of everything in town, and it still is.” The Clarks have a working relationship with the Lake Placid Film Festival and the nearby Lake Placid Center for the Arts. The Palace occasionally screens silent films, with Jeff Barker coming up from New York City to accompany on the organ. In cooperation with the Lions Club, the theater shows The Polar Express free for local children every December, bringing Santa Claus in for the occasion.
In recognition of the Palace’s importance to Lake Placid, TAUNY—Traditional Arts in Upstate New York—added the theater to its Register of Very Special Places in July, 2010.
Summer is a wonderful time to visit Lake Placid, and every night crowds gather under the Palace marquee. But even on cold, wintry nights, lines can stretch down the block. Entering the theater is like stepping back into a time before tablets, cable, before television itself hijacked our nights.
The theater’s biggest recent hit was Titanic, which played for fifteen weeks when it opened. But the Clarks are too busy to actually attend their screenings. “We have a date night once in a while,” Barbara admitted. “I don’t watch too many,” Reg said. “If I’m here and it’s quiet I’ll go in and watch some of the show.”
Tell us about your favorite movie theater in the comments section.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me @Film_Legacy.
April 11, 2012
Opening Friday, April 20, To the Arctic 3D is the 35th IMAX documentary from MacGillivray Freeman Films. Narrated by Meryl Streep and with songs by Paul McCartney, the film examines how polar bears and other Arctic wildlife are struggling with climate change. But the real draw to the film is the astonishing cinematography by Greg MacGillivray and his crew.
The foremost name in large-format filmmaking, MacGillivray Freeman has been making IMAX documentaries for over 35 years. It is the first documentary production company to earn a billion dollars in box-office receipts. The company began in the late 1960s when surfing fanatics Greg MacGillivray and Jim Freeman pooled resources to work on documentaries and commercials. They gained a reputation for aerial photography after their 1971 short about Mexico, Sentinels of Silence, won two Oscars.
The company won a commission from the Smithsonian Institution to make a large-format film about aviation as the opening attraction at the National Air and Space Museum (and to tie-in with the nation’s bicentennial). To Fly!, the second highest-grossing large format film of all time, is still regularly screened at the museum. (Jim Freeman died in a helicopter accident two days before the premiere of To Fly!)
With titles like Everest, The Living Sea, and Hurricane on the Bayou, MacGillivray Freeman not only helped legitimize the IMAX process, it helped establish a new audience for films. Dozens of museums and educational facilities have built IMAX theaters, and large-format wildlife documentaries have become a right of passage for a generation of schoolchildren. “And IMAX is growing by leaps and bounds in developing countries,” MacGillivray adds. “Particularly China. In five years there will be over 200 IMAX theaters in China.”
Large-format filmmaking requires different skills than those for feature films and television. “The shots are longer, and you’re shooting wider—wider lenses and wider scenes so that the audience experiences the material in a kind of interactive way,” MacGillivray told me by phone last week from his Los Angeles offices. “In a normal movie, the director controls what you look at. The shots don’t last very long because you’re getting the audience to look at specific things. An IMAX shot, on the other hand, can be twenty or thirty seconds long. The audience has time to look around the frame, see the birds flying in the distance, a flock of geese coming overhead, the wind whipping up in the background. The viewers aren’t manipulated, they’re experiencing it on their own terms.”
The opening shots of To the Arctic 3D, a majestic aerial view of a glacial shelf complete with calving icebergs, puts MacGillivray’s theories into practice. The images have a startling beauty and clarity, and patient filmmaking gives viewers time to appreciate them fully.
The director is coming to grips with inevitable changes to the IMAX process. IMAX offers both film and digital projection systems. Digital is required for 3D projection, but it won’t reach 4K resolution for another two years or so. And according to MacGillivray, 4K is necessary to duplicate the IMAX experience on film.
Most IMAX theaters in museums are film based, and will remain so for at least three or four years. “It will be bad if theaters change over to digital before the quality is there,” MacGillivray believes. “The films could lose their audience.”
MacGillivray still shoots on film for 70 percent of the time, even though an IMAX magazine holds enough for only three minutes of footage. Plus it can take ten minutes to load a new magazine when you’re working in sub-zero temperatures. “That becomes tricky when shooting wildlife,” MacGillivray points out. “You have to plan when you will be reloading.”
Why work in such a cumbersome process? “When you’re capturing on IMAX 15/70 film, you’re getting ten times the resolution of the highest form of digital today,” MacGillivray says. “4K digital, for example, is about 12 million pixels per frame, and IMAX in 15/70 film is over 120 million—some say 150 million— pixels per frame.”
MacGillivray hopes the digital process will eventually reach 8K, at which point it could duplicate or even better the resolution from the film system. But there will still be differences in how each process looks on screen.
The film image, for example, is built from grain that forms when silver halide particles are exposed to light. MacGillivray explains that the grain particles form a random pattern. “Grain isn’t structured like a screen door that you’re looking through, but pixels are. Film-based grain is just all over the place, one frame totally different from the next. So your edges are coolly sharp and have a different feeling, an organic feeling rather than this mechanic feeling you get with digital. A lot of people relate it to the difference between vinyl music and digital music.”
Another difference between film and digital: “Film has far more color shades. It’s called bit depth in digital terms. And most bit depth in digital is about twelve, but film bit depth can be twenty to thirty. And so you just have more shades of yellow and red and oranges and everything. You can get extra shades of color with digital if you had more storage, but then you’re defeating the chief advantage of the process because everything would get bigger and more expensive.”
If the color, organic look, and smoothness of film are superior to digital, why switch processes? “With digital you do have the advantage of having an absolutely rock steady image because there’s no projector gate, no perforations, no film weaving through a machine. And there’s no dust, and no scratching.”
MacGillivray also finds digital easier to work with, “a lot easier until something goes wrong. And then you have to close down for two days so an expert can come in.”
To the Arctic 3D is being presented through the One World One Ocean Foundation. Founded by MacGillivray and his wife Barbara, this new initiative is intended to raise awareness to ocean issues through IMAX and feature films, television specials, YouTube videos, and other social media. The director cites the work of Jacques Cousteau, who in the 1960s would broadcast as many as three or four ocean-related television specials a year. “The ocean needs a voice in the entertainment base, and we’re going to try to bring the same continuity of effort that Cousteau did some 40 years ago,” he says.
Read about how astronauts were trained to use IMAX cameras on the space shuttle on our Around the Mall blog.
April 6, 2012
April 15 marks the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic, a milestone that has received generous coverage at Smithsonian. Filmmaker and deep-sea explorer James Cameron jumped the gun a bit by re-releasing a 3D version of his epic Titanic to selected theaters on Wednesday, April 4. Early box-office returns look promising.
Titanic is a movie that buffs love to hate, perhaps because it was such a blockbuster hit. I saw it when it first opened and was astonished by Cameron’s vision, grasp of detail, and sheer tenacity. It was a film that bulled its way to the top despite all the obstacles against it, earning respect if not admiration.
Cameron didn’t change much for the 3D upgrade (according to this article by Frank Lovece, the only new shot is a corrected map of the night sky), but the film now seems even more impressive. The 3D effects are minimal—most effective for me when the weight of water burst rivets from a buckled hull—but they have the paradoxical effect of making Titanic seem bigger and more intimate.
What’s clearer now, some 14 years after the film’s original release, is just how astute Cameron’s storytelling was. Titanic could have been just another disaster film, a period Poseidon Adventure in which we wait to see which cast member will die next. Instead, Cameron found a way to personalize this horrific incident through a romance as unlikely as it was compelling. The characters played by Leonardo di Caprio and Kate Winslet are conceived so well that viewers want them to survive, to beat the odds, just as they want their love affair to take hold despite family and class obstacles. The fact that their romance played out during a disaster gave added urgency to the unfolding events.
Titanic has its flaws, including over-the-top villains, too many water-sloshed corridors, and that grating pop song over the credits. But focused screenwriting, majestic imagery, crisp editing, and, now, 3D enhancements help make it an unforgettable moviegoing experience. The film’s sheer size and emotional pull work best in theaters, where viewers can share in a sort of communal catharsis.
For several years now, Luke McKernan’s blog The Bioscope has been a first-rate source of research into the world of early cinema. (He also edits an excellent early cinema aggregator on Scoop.It.) His latest piece, And the ship sails on, seems to me to be the definitive take on Titanic footage, real and faked. He also includes a clip of the recent British Pathé re-edit of the only genuine extant footage of the ship.
What I find fascinating is that filmmaker William H. Harbeck was a Titanic passenger, and may have shot footage during the fateful voyage. That film would be something to see. Mr. McKernan will cover this and more on April 15 at London’s The Cinema Museum when he delivers a talk on The Titanic Centenary, Featuring “The Ill-Fated Titantic.”
Unfortunately, as Mr. McKernan points out, the Titanic clip has been edited down from the original ten-minute Gaumont short.
Closer to home, Serge Bromberg will be hosting a night of screenings at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Monday, April 9. Mr. Bromberg was one of the key figures behind the recent restoration of A Trip to the Moon, which I wrote about last year. In addition to the Méliès film, Bromberg is showing a new restoration of Buster Keaton’s The Boat and A Trip Down Market Street, a film of hypnotic beauty that was featured on a “60 Minutes” segment. Bromberg is a performer as well as an archivist and preservationist, and it’s always a treat to hear him play piano and provide backgrounds to the screenings. Plus he usually has a surprise film or two up his sleeve.
The Eighth Orphan Film Symposium starts on April 11 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens. I wrote about the Seventh Symposium, which featured little-known films by Orson Welles and Henri Cartier-Bresson, among others. The Symposium is an opportunity for archivists from all over the world to share their work, giving attendees sneak peaks at films that may become more accessible later. It’s where I first saw A Trip Down Market Street, for example. This year’s films include When the Organ Played “O Promise Me,” an Auroratone short starring Bing Crosby, and The Jungle, a 1967 drama about Philadelphia inner-city gangs made by the 12th and Oxford Street Film Makers.
On the West Coast, the TCM Classic Film Festival starts on April 12. A celebration of more mainstream films (Cabaret, Black Narcissus, Charade) that takes place in a number of Los Angeles theaters, the festival can be pricey, with passes running as high as $1199. The perks include the chance to mingle with stars like Mel Brooks, Kim Novak, and Debbie Reynolds, and TCM host Robert Osborne.
In a related note, Hugh Neely is asking for your help with the Mary Pickford Foundation’s funding of the Mary Pickford Institute for Film Education. You can sign a petition to insure that the institute’s work continues.
Finally, my editor pointed out this video by filmmaker Jeff Desom. Using Photoshop and After Effects, Desom took the wide shots in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window and condensed them into a three-minute time-lapse shot that covers the entire film. As Desom explained in this interview, the original project turned the film into a continuous, 20 minute loop.
Read Reel Culture posts every Wednesday and Friday. Follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy
April 4, 2012
In a sense baseball and the movies grew up together. While the game’s roots stretch back to the 18th century, many baseball rules weren’t codified until the 1880s, when Thomas Edison first started thinking about a device to record and play moving pictures. Baseball may have been a well-established sport, but in many particulars it would be almost unrecognizable to us today, as a still from 1899′s Casey at the Bat or The Fate of a “Rotten” Umpire indicates.
By some accounts, baseball’s modern era began in 1903, when rules were standardized, the two dominant professional leagues reorganized, and the first World Series scheduled. It was also the year the first American movie blockbuster, The Great Train Robbery, was released.
The “dead ball era,” roughly 1900–1920, resulted in a phenomenal rise in baseball popularity, one that was paralleled in the movie industry. It was a time that saw the construction of large stadiums like Wrigley Field and Fenway Park, soon to be matched by ornate movie palaces. Scandals struck both baseball and movies, like the Black Sox of the 1919 World Series and the still-unsolved murder of movie star William Desmond Taylor.
Baseball was depicted on film as early as 1899, but apart from newsreels the sport is almost always used as a background or setting, and not as the main thrust of a movie story. Like football, baseball became an all-purpose metaphor, a way to examine character, to reflect on society, to question or affirm authority.
His Last Game (1909), for example, tied together illegal gambling, alcoholism, and capital punishment into its plot about a Choctaw baseball player who is forced to throw a game. The lead character in The Ball Player and the Bandit (1912), directed by John Ford’s older brother Francis, learns integrity as well as physical skills from the sport, which come in handy when he is sent to a bandit-heavy Arizona frontier. Both films are part of a compilation of silent movies from Kino called Reel Baseball.
Real-life baseball legend Babe Ruth appeared as himself in the amusing and highly fictionalized Headin’ Home (1920), also featured on Reel Baseball. You can catch glimpses of other baseball stars in newsreels of the time, although they sometimes show up in unexpected places. For example, Cleveland Indians manager and center fielder Tris Speaker has a cameo in Heroes All, a Red Cross fund-raising film.
To see athletes actually playing baseball on screen, it’s best to turn to comedy. Hearts and Diamonds (1914), starring comedian John Bunny, features footage shot at a pro ball stadium; the comedy shorts Butter Fingers (1925) and Happy Days (1926) both include extended playing sequences. (All three are on Reel Baseball.)
Buster Keaton loved baseball, and included jokes about it in several of his movies. He even plays a prehistoric version in The Three Ages. A wistful vignette in The Cameraman shows Keaton miming pitching and batting in an empty Yankee Stadium.
Whenever he was stuck during production, Keaton would stop shooting and put together a game with his crew. (According to friend and actor Harold Goodwin, Keaton gave this questionnaire to prospective hires: “Can you act?” “Can you play baseball?” A passing grade was 50%.) He also staged many charity exhibition games featuring other movie stars.
One Run Elmer (1935), a sound short he made for Educational Pictures, pulls together his favorite baseball jokes: an enormous bat, a base attached by elastic string to the player, a spitball that sticks to the bat, an onlooker who switches a grapefruit for the ball, and so on.
That same year comedian Joe E. Brown starred in Alibi Ike, adapted from a 1915 short story by Ring Lardner. Bob Meusel and Jim Thorpe have cameos, a tradition that continued in several features. Doris Day manages to get Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris, and Yogi Berra thrown out of a game in That Touch of Mink (1962), for example. (Mantle and Berra also appear in the 1958 musical Damn Yankees.)
Cartoons had a field day with baseball. Felix Saves the Day (1922), starring Felix the Cat, mixes animation with live-action footage. In The Twisker Pitcher (1937), Popeye and Bluto battle each other on the diamond. Some of the gags in this Fleischer brothers cartoon end up in Baseball Bugs (1946), a Bugs Bunny outing in which he single-handedly takes on the Gas-House Gorillas. Clips from Baseball Bugs were incorporated into His Hare-Raising Tale (1951), while the jokes themselves were recycled Gone Batty (1954), a Warner Bros. vehicle for Bobo the Elephant. (I still haven’t tracked down Porky’s Baseball Broadcast, a 1940 short directed by Frez Freleng.)
Perhaps because so many viewers dream of playing pro ball, fantasy has been a durable genre for baseball films. Usually the story comes with a tidy moral attached. In It Happens Every Spring (1949), a college professor played by Ray Milland discovers a compound that repels wood. He parlays his find into a career as a major-league pitcher, only to learn that he must rely on himself, and not potions, to succeed. In Angels in the Outfield (1951), angels use miracles help the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates to the big game, but only if they give up swearing. (Disney released a loose remake starring Danny Glover, Christopher Lloyd and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 1994.)
The worst fantasy-related baseball film may well be Ed, a 1996 Universal picture in which “Friends” star Matt LeBlanc befriends a baseball-playing chimpanzee. The best, or at least the one that has resonated with viewers the most, is arguably 1989′s Field of Dreams, written and directed by Phil Alden Robinson and based on the novel Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. Field of Dreams got everything right, from its depiction of a troubled farmer on his last legs (played by Kevin Costner) to its memorable catch phrase (“If you build it, he will come.”). It’s a film whose meaning becomes clear only during its final shot (which I will not spoil here). While the ultimate fate of the real-life “Field of Dreams” is unclear, you can still visit this summer.
What is your favorite baseball movie? Let us know in the comments below